This is part one of a multi-part series. Please subscribe to get free updates if you haven’t already.
Personal development saved my life, but not without some side effects. In college, I had been in a troubled relationship for a couple years and when it finally ended, I was overwhelmed with depression. I found that by focusing on the positive, making new friends, and trying new things, I pulled myself out (with a little help from a therapist who had more of a Life Coaching style). I surprised myself with my charisma and extroversion, having always been a geeky intellectual kid. But then I graduated, moved halfway across the country, and had to start over…in the Real World.
As a Philosophy B.A. and an anti-corporate, environmental activist, I wasn’t exactly well-prepared for the job market. I had worked at the Help Desk in college so I found a job doing tech support. While I was good at the work, I found the corporate environment stifling to say the least (I watched “Office Space” over 50 times during this period). One day I got sick with something awful. So weak I could hardly get out of bed for two weeks, I neglected to tell anyone—including my employer—and lost my job in the process. (I’m convinced now that my unconscious decided to quit for me since I couldn’t muster up the courage to do so consciously.)
I fell into a terrible depression. A friend of mine loaned me some of Tony Robbins’ tapes (Personal Power II) and I threw myself in wholeheartedly. On tape one, Robbins describes his own depression and how he overcame it by controlling his focus and physiology, as I had done in college but with far more enthusiasm. I listened to all 30 days worth of tapes in less than 2 weeks. I got myself pumped up, made a huge list of goals, and did every exercise and homework assignment. I suppose this is the point in the story where I’m supposed to say that my life totally turned around and now I’m a massive success, but it didn’t quite work that way….
Walkin’ On Sunshine
A few years later, a friend of mine who also was a Robbins devotee decided we should both go to a live seminar with the larger-than-life motivator. That’s how I found myself looking up at the Qwest building logo in downtown Denver, walking across burning hot coals with 2000 people. With drums beating in the background, everyone was chanting “YES! YES! YES!” There was no room for doubt. All fear had been overpowered by force of will. Later this came in handy when Robbins’ pitched his Mastery University, a multiple thousands of dollars series of “advanced” seminars taking place in exotic locations. Again Robbins worked the crowd into a frenzy of “YES!”, overpowering objections by any means necessary.
Nearly every technique employed for the firewalk employed aggressive positivity, actively negating reality through force:
- 2000 people in a huge conference room with 50-ft screens jumping up and down and clapping to loud music.
- Screaming “Yes!” when you are feeling “this is dangerous and possibly stupid.”
- Yelling “cool moss!” when you are feeling burning coals against the soft tissue of your feet.
- Making your “power move” to get into “a peak state”—a power move being an aggressive gesture (Robbins’ involves beating his chest like an ape) that stimulates a fight-flight nervous system response, overpowering subtler experiences.
The firewalk occurs on day one of the four-day “Unleash the Power Within” seminar (“the power within” is the power of emotion when consciously controlled and intensified). Walking on fire is a metaphor for breaking through fear. Since fear is supposed to be the only thing stopping you from achieving your dreams, once one has broken through fear there should be no obstacles to success. Therefore once one has walked across fire, they should very quickly become totally successful at all things by applying the same principles.
Unfortunately few contexts are relevantly similar to firewalking, as I found out the hard way. Achieving most personal outcomes requires patience, persistence, and flexibility, not an intense emotional display and impulsive action.
But this aggressive positivity does work in some contexts. Unfortunately it works by bowling over inner and outer objections. I have a distinct memory once of having a disagreement with someone after UPW. They had an objection to something I was saying, or some goal I had set for myself. I found myself raising my voice, becoming more passionate and expressive, and they immediately backed down. I realized in that moment that this stuff was dangerous—being aggressively positive in this way was a kind of emotional bullying, getting your way through force of personality. If you get emotional enough, others can no longer think rationally—most either enthusiastically agree or get disgusted with you and walk off. (Luckily I had some meditator friends who had cultivated enough equanimity to continue to rationally question me during this period. Lucky too that I had not been fully indoctrinated so I was willing to listen.)
It took me years to realize that this is also what I had been doing inside. The aggressive positivity of Tony Robbins had appealed to me precisely because it fit well with the self-hate I had already been engaged in. I forced myself to be happy because I didn’t know how to deal with my intense, painful emotions—especially the existential anxiety and despair I had encountered through deep contemplation as a Philosophy major. For me, aggressive positivity was a counter-phobic response to the existential condition…was this also the case for Robbins? How many aggressively positive self-help enthusiasts are engaged in self-improvement as a strategy to avoid confronting the inevitability of death?
Luckily the enthusiasm that I had displayed when running hard in the wrong direction was not all lost, for I was developing general skills that would be helpful once I finally turned around… (to be continued). Click here for part 2.
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